What\'s in you
A casual observer of Rowan Hammond Holland sees a little towhead,
devilishly cute, who grins impishly while tossing food at the family dog.
A pediatrician sees a kid who\'s a bit small for his age: 30-odd inches
tall, 22 pounds, about 10th percentile for 20-month-old boys.
But not even his mother could guess what\'s in his blood: flame
retardants, at concentrations higher than measured almost anywhere in
the world for someone not handling the stuff for a living.
He\'s a typical kid from a typical family, picked for an Oakland Tribune
investigation of chemical pollutants in our bodies.
The surprising result, scientists say, suggests infants and toddlers
have vastly higher levels of some chemical pollutants than health
officials suspect or even consider safe.
But no one can say. Rowan is the only toddler, at least in the United
States, who\'s been tested for such things, despite evidence these
compounds taint our blood, our food, our house dust, our kids.
This is our \"body burden\" our chemical legacy, picked up from our
possessions, passed to our children and sown across the environment.
It\'s the result, scientists say, of 50 years of increasing reliance on
synthetic chemicals for every facet of our daily lives.
Only recently have regulators grasped its scope. Health officials have
yet to fully comprehend its consequence.
We are all, in a sense, subjects of an experiment, with no way to buy
your way out, eat your way out or exercise your way out. We are guinea
pigs when it comes to the unknown long-term threat these chemicals pose
in our bodies and, in particular, our children.
In the first study of its kind, Rowan and his family had their blood,
hair and urine tested for a suite of chemical pollutants thought to be
ubiquitous in our environment.
The tests showed PCBs, plasticizers, mercury, lead and cadmium in each
family member. Chemicals used to make Teflon and GoreTex contaminated
their blood. Mikaela, Rowan\'s 5-year-old sister, had more dibutyl
phthalate a plasticizer found in nail polish and cosmetics in her
urine than 90 percent of the 328 kids age 6-11 tested so far in the
The shock was the family\'s level of a class of flame retardants
polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs used in everything from TV
casings to rugs to foam cushions. In the United States, where levels are
10 to 100 times higher than the rest of the world, the average adult is
thought to have 36 parts per billion in their blood.
A cocktail mixed at that concentration would have 36 drops of gin in a
rail tank car of tonic. Rowan\'s mom, Michele Hammond, had 138 ppb. His
dad, Jeremiah Holland, 102. His sister, 490. And Rowan: 838 ppb.
Scientists start to see behavioral changes in lab rats at 300 ppb.
\"This is a very serious warning of very small children being heavily
exposed,\" said Aake Bergman, professor of environmental chemistry at
Stockholm University in Sweden and one of the world\'s foremost experts
on human exposure to fire retardants. \"We may have many more people
being exposed at similar levels.\" Proportions will vary, and indeed, a
follow-up test of the Hammond Hollands found lower but still alarming
PBDE levels in the children. A similar chemical stew can be found in
every adult and child in the country, scientists say. The exposure comes
courtesy of our lifestyle, in which synthetic chemistry imbues the
modern world with convenience beyond that of any generation in history.
We make perfume from petroleum and preserve food in plastic. Our chances
of dying in a building fire are almost nil. We clean bathrooms without
scrubbing, spill coffee without worry of a stain.
Yet these modern wonders come with a price. As synthetic chemicals have
saturated our lives, so too have they permeated our bodies.
We don\'t know the effect it has on our health. But scientists do have
Autism, once an affliction of 1 in 10,000 children, today is the scourge
of 1 in 166.
Childhood asthma rates have similarly exploded. And one in 12 couples of
reproductive age in the United States is infertile.
One may not cause the other; to draw such links remains, for now, beyond
the grasp of science. Industry and other scientists say exposure remains
well below levels considered harmful the Hammond Holland\'s numbers
notwithstanding. Our ability to detect these compounds, invisible even
five years ago, has outstripped our ability to interpret the results.
Publishing body burden data, in other words, does little but make people
But if it was your 2-year-old, would you want to know?
Monday night at the Hammond Holland\'s Berkeley home, and life is quiet.
Jeremiah, 35, a high school photography teacher and coach of the
school\'s mountain biking team, is away leading a team cycling class at
the Berkeley YMCA.
Mikaela started kindergarten last fall and has mastered the alphabet,
which she proudly shows off: big A\'s and little c\'s, small d\'s and
capital Z\'s, painstakenly written by small fingers with remnants of red
polish on the nails. The alphabet is in random order but amazingly complete.
Rowan is finishing dinner corn, carrots, pasta with tomato sauce,
hard-boiled egg yolk and cheese. He has dispensed with bib and utensils
in favor of a more direct hand-to-mouth approach, announcing he\'s done
by shoveling a big handful of spaghetti off his high-chair tray onto the
Michele, watching, doesn\'t mind. The dog will get it. And at least Rowan
In February 2004, Rowan fell off the growth charts, registering below
the zero percentile for kids his age. He\'s since held steady at the 10th
percentile, but Michele, 36, says it\'s never been easy to get him to eat
His location at the lower end of normal and the upper end of active
could be a simple result of genetics. Or it
could be his thyroid.
The danger of PBDEs, says Dr. Mark Miller, director of the Pediatric
Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San
Francisco, is that they act as developmental neurotoxins and disrupt
thyroid activity in rats and other lab animals. And they do so at levels
one-third of Rowan\'s, say scientists at the state Environmental
Michele, who figures her son is just a small, active kid, tries not to
dwell on that thought.
Doctors such as Miller who specialize in environmental contaminants see
no reason the family should have such high exposures. Researchers at
Albemarle, a Louisiana-based manufacturer of brominated flame
retardants, are equally mystified.
\"It\'s hard to interpret the results, yet so important,\" said Dr. Gina
Solomon, associate director of Miller\'s UCSF clinic and a senior
scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. \"The fact that (the
family\'s) levels are on the high side is symptomatic of what\'s going on
Swedish scientists such as Bergman first alerted ฎMDNMฏthe world to
growing levels of PBDEs in our bodies. Researchers monitoring Swedish
breast milk samples for a slew of contaminants found PBDE concentrations
doubling every five years over the 1980s and 1990s.
The United States recently launched a similar program but it tracks only
a dozen of chemical families and won\'t release PBDE data until 2007.
Efforts to create a similar program in California for a suite of
environmental contaminants, including PBDEs, were shot down last year
after the state Chamber of Commerce labeled it a job killer.
But tipped off by the Swedes, researchers here found concentrations in
wildlife, human blood and breast milk doubling even faster every 18
That\'s just fire retardants. And one type, at that.
There are organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, the pesticide that
launched the modern environmental movement. Banned in the 1970s, they
can be found today in our house dust, food and bodies.
PCBs, banned in 1979, similarly plague us. Decades worth of evidence
shows these chemicals predecessors of and close chemical cousins to
PBDEs don\'t belong in the body. Numbers have declined over the years,
but they\'re there in Rowan and Mikaela and all of us a lifetime\'s
supply, courtesy of Monsanto Chemical Co, once the only domestic
Also everywhere, but with little known of the health consequences, are
phthalates plasticizers that make lotions absorbable, nail polish
pliable, cologne scented and plastic soft. Our kidneys filter them
quickly from our body, but a daily replenishing shower from our material
world keeps our bodies\' phthalate levels steady.
Then there\'s Teflon, GoreTex, Scotchgard and other non-stick and
stain-repellent wonders. In 2000, 3M, the sole U.S. manufacturer of the
two crucial ingredients necessary to make such products, announced it
had found traces of one perfluorooctane sulfanate in virtually every
human blood sample it had tested in the United States and Europe.
Sure enough, the two compounds turned up in the Hammond Hollands, too.
Michele is angry, but not worried. Not yet. \"If in the next year
something goes wrong with Rowan, then I\'m all of a sudden going to freak
out about these numbers,\" she said.
Michele is a classic naturalist, most at home in the field, where she
identifies birds from their songs and can name the grasses underfoot. At
the University of California, Berkeley, she researches grassland ecology.
She finds most frustrating her inability to protect her kids from the
pollutants. If she wanted to curb Rowan\'s and Mikaela\'s exposures,
Michele wouldn\'t know where to start.
Sources are everywhere, yet impossible to track.
PBDEs show up in foam cushions and plastic casings. But which ones? One
manufacturer might use a brominated flame retardant, another might use
phosphorous. There\'s aluminum trihydrates and magnesium hydrates. The
label never says.
\"You can\'t make a universal judgment that just because it\'s a plastic,
it has flame retardant,\" said Paul Ranken, senior research and
development adviser for Albemarle, one of three domestic manufacturers
of decaBDE, a brominated flame retardant.
\"Your house may be different from my house. Your carpeting might be
different. You might have a little bit of polypropylene
I might have
nylon.\" Phthalates (THAAL-ates) are similar. We need them to make
plastics soft and flexible. Without them fragrances could not be
dissolved into lotions and colognes. Ink would flake off bread bags.
Your vinyl shower curtain would crack as you pulled it open.
But like PBDEs, some products have them. Some don\'t. Good luck trying to
tell the difference.
\"The fact of life is that phthalates are a remarkably useful product
allow people without a lot of money to have a first-world
lifestyle,\" said Marian Stanley, manager of the Phthalate Esters Panel
for the American Chemistry Council. \"The risk is a theoretical risk. If
you had the smallest baby with the most exposure for the longest time,
you theoretically have a risk. Practically, do you have a risk? Nobody\'s
seen it yet.\"
But is anybody looking?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conducting the only
widespread biomonitoring program in the United States, looking at
national exposure to pesticides, PCBs, dioxins and phthalates, among
others. Its next report, cataloging some 148 compounds, is due later
this spring. But there are gaps.
Its last report, released in 2003, summarized the results of 2,541
people tested for dibutyl phthatalate, an additive found in nail polish,
cosmetics, pill coatings, printing inks and, oddly, insecticides.
Of those, 328 were children under the age of 11. None were younger than
6. Yet exposure increases as the age group gets younger, with kids
between 6 and 11 on average having twice the level as adults over 20.
That\'s true with the Hammond Hollands. Mikaela\'s levels are three times
her mom\'s and almost nine times her dad\'s.
\"There\'s not enough (information) to allow for big generalizations,\"
said Solomon, the UCSF physician, who with Miller met with the family
and helped interpret their results. \"What it does do is show the huge
need for this information, both to allow us to put these results in
context and also give us information on what\'s going on out there over
time and over age groups.
\"We\'re blind to what\'s going on out there.\"
Forty-seven minutes in and Jeremiah\'s heart is churning at close to 180
beats per minute. His legs blur against his stationary cycle, thighs and
calves straining, as he leads his high school bike team through a Monday
night \"spin\" class.
A furious beat thumps from the room\'s loudspeakers. Sweat pours off
Jeremiah\'s nose. Flywheels spin, pedals whirl. Then the pitch jumps a
notch as Jeremiah goads the teens and the pace, incredibly, picks up.
Two years ago Jeremiah weighed 237 pounds. Today he\'s 180. He went from
a size 40 waistband to a size 34, which he last wore in high school.
His wedding suit is too big for him.
He shed those pounds on the bike trails, trying to keep up with his
students. He gave up alcohol and started eating better.
PCBs, dioxins, DDT, PBDEs, phthalates all love fat. Which is one reason
many stick around so long, sequestered in our waistlines.
So as Jeremiah\'s fat burned off, so, too, did some of his body burden,
doctors surmise. It could explain why his exposures, in many instances,
are lower than his children\'s.
He also unwittingly played a dangerous game, Solomon and Miller
said. As the fat broke apart, contaminants were freed. Some got trapped
by the bile and were eliminated. Some landed in other fat cells. And
some likely migrated to nerve cells or the brain.
Michele, meanwhile, shed her body burden as only a woman can.
Breast milk is 4 percent fat. As Michele nursed Mikaela and then Rowan,
she drained a life\'s accumulation of pollutants into her children.
Her PCB results show that most dramatically: Mikaela has 207 ppb
slightly more than her dad.
Rowan has 355. But Michele has 69.
That\'s no reason to stop breast-feeding, cautioned Kim Hooper, the state
PBDE expert with Cal EPA who has done extensive work with breast milk.
Quite the opposite. Because in addition to fat, breast milk contains
essential vitamins, minerals, growth hormones, enzymes, proteins and
Plenty of evidence also suggests Rowan and other children get a far
bigger dose from their environment. Several studies have found dust
studded with these contaminants in the part-per-million range 100 to
1,000 times what\'s found in humans. We all ingest a little dust daily,
with children eating far more than adults due to higher hand-to-mouth
The other big route to our bodies is food.
Three years ago, Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas
School of Public Health, set out to show how much our diets contribute
to our body burden.
He pulled 30 everyday items off the shelves of three Dallas
supermarkets. They got sliced, diced and mashed to a pulp, washed in
hexane, vaporized and shot into a high-resolution gas chromatograph. He
found PBDEs in eggs, milk, steak and fish. He also found them in soy
infant formula, albeit at a minuscule 16 parts-per-trillion
In Emeryville, Richard Wenning is doing the same thing with chickens,
finding no difference in PBDE levels between free-range organic hens and
The compounds are spread far and wide, in air and dust. They\'re taken up
by plants, eaten by animals. We eat the animals and spread our sewage
sludge back on the fields.
In this respect, organically grown food is no different from
conventional, said Wenning, a principle at Environ International Corp.,
an environmental consulting firm advising industry and regulators. \"It\'s
Until we can actually break the molecules apart, they\'re
going to come around again.\"
As Michele and Jeremiah look around their house and wonder, industry
and to a certain extent regulators see red herrings.
It would make little sense to toss the family\'s hand-me-down polystyrene
carpet or their recently purchased foam-and-coil mattress and replace
them with all-natural products, even if they could afford it. Nobody
understands how PBDEs migrate from your living room couch. Or if they
Come summer, mother and daughter will still polish their toenails
together, as they always have. With phthalates everywhere, would doing
otherwise make any difference?
Not if the Tribune\'s lab results are any indication. Michele uses no
cosmetics beyond nail polish, yet her level of mono-butyl phthalate
the body\'s byproduct of a compound common in beauty products _ sits
above average for American women, based on CDC data.
The CDC cannot say whether that\'s good or bad for her health.
That, industry says, is the problem with trace analysis. We can see in
the parts-per-trillion range, but we have little idea what it means.
While consumers may be alarmed, industry looks at the numbers and sees
the need for further study.
\"The science doesn\'t say (exposure) is going to grow to any level where
we see concern anytime soon,\" said Ron Zumstein, vice president for
health, safety and environment at Albemarle, the decaBDE manufacturer.
\"That\'s kind of how we look at it. You\'ve got a huge margin of safety.\"
Others note we didn\'t see epidemics 30 years ago, when DDT and PCB use
were at their height. Teflon has been applied to pots since 1962, with
no apparent problems from the compound or its precursors.
Zumstein and a crew of Albemarle scientists analyzed the Hammond
Holland\'s PBDE results at the Tribune\'s request. They were skeptical.
The samples could have been contaminated, they said. There\'s no easy
explanation for why the children would be so much higher than their
parents, and the results don\'t seem to match what little we know about
The EPA is assessing exposure risks and is expected to announce soon
what it sees as the gaps in the research. Zumstein and his team say
they\'re waiting for that before taking the next step.
\"The (family\'s) results are outside the range of what we\'ve seen,\"
Zumstein said. \"We don\'t want to jump to conclusions if the science has
not been scrutinized yet.\"
That\'s exactly what industry has been saying for years, contend critics
seeking to reform U.S. chemical oversight.
We don\'t know what these chemicals do in our body. The science is still
being scrutinized. Yet we still put these compounds in our products,
expose them to our children, eat them daily for dinner.
In a country of 300 million, we know the levels of fire retardant in
fewer than 200 individuals. Meanwhile annual worldwide demand for PBDEs,
according to industry groups, was almost 150 million pounds in 1999, up
67 percent from 1990. Half of that ends up in the U.S. market.
We have a legacy of reacting after the fact lead, asbestos, mercury,
Studies, notoriously difficult to construct, remain scarce. The federal
government hasn\'t made funding such science a priority, declining, for
example, to underwrite any studies of toxins in breast milk, Schecter said.
Would we curb our appetite take more of a precautionary approach if
we all knew, like the Hammond Hollands, what lurks in our bodies?
\"I\'m not happy with a few data points. We cannot draw final conclusions
from a family of four,\" said Bergman, the Swedish PBDE researcher. But
\"this is an indication of a very serious problem that society has to
1. CDC thimerosal findings in 1999 - subsequent data dilution -
full analysis, with charts
2. Till Luckenbach and David Epel. Nitromusk and Polycyclic Musk
Compounds as Long-Term Inhibitors of Cellular Xenobiotic Defense Systems
Mediated by Multidrug Transporters. Environ Health Perspect 113:17-24
Synthetic musk compounds, widely used as fragrances in consumer
products, have been detected in human tissue and, surprisingly, in
aquatic organisms such as fish and mollusks. Although their persistence
and potential to bioaccumulate are of concern, the toxicity and
environmental risks of these chemicals are generally regarded as low.
Here, however, we show that nitromusks and polycyclic musks inhibit the
activity of multidrug efflux transporters responsible for
multixenobiotic resistance (MXR) in gills of the marine mussel Mytilus
californianus. The IC10 (concentration that inhibits 10%) values for the
different classes of musks were in the range of 0.09-0.39 ตM, and IC50
values were 0.74-2.56 ตM. The immediate consequence of inhibition of
efflux transporters is that normally excluded xenobiotics will now be
able to enter the cell. Remarkably, the inhibitory effects of a brief
2-hr exposure to musks were only partially reversed after a 24- to 48-hr
recovery period in clean seawater. This unexpected consequence of
synthetic musks--a long-term loss of efflux transport activity--will
result in continued accumulation of normally excluded toxicants even
after direct exposure to the musk has ended. These findings also point
to the need to determine whether other environmental chemicals have
similar long-term effects on these transporters. The results are
relevant to human health because they raise the possibility that
exposure to common xenobiotics and pharmaceuticals could cause similar
long-term inhibition of these transporters and lead to increased
exposure to normally excluded toxicants. Key words: chemosensitizers,
fragrances, MDR, multidrug resistance, multixenobiotic resistance, MXR,
Mytilus californianus, nitromusks, polycyclic musks.